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Thinking with - a response to and for the work ‘Across the middle, past the east’

by Martin Hansen


This piece of writing was commissioned by the artists Roni Katz and Lee Meir. I am a friend and colleague of theirs. This is not a review. This piece was constructed through a procedure that uses the essay ’Nothing comes without its world’ by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa to think with and alongside the work by the artists who collectively appeared in ‘Across the middle and past the east’.


Everything that we do to maintain and repair our world: because we desire to live in it well. This is how we might think of care, the act of caring. This includes our bodies, our selves and our environment. Our environment includes the bodies of others, other selves populating spaces with us and separate from us. If we want to live well, then attending to the interweaving complexities between ourselves and these other human and non human bodies has to be the thing that sustains us. 


Roni Katz and Lee Meir assembled a group of female identifying artists from various middle eastern countries to work and present together in Berlin. Not an unlikely collective, a likely category. A Cabaret is a form of variety show that I think came from Weimar Germany, it happens in bars at night, with alcohol and night time forms of inhabiting social spaces. Moreover, a cabaret consists of singular, discrete ‘numbers’ - each to their own yet still together, still a collective. Brilliant, the Cabaret form complicates the singularity of the categories these artists involuntarily inhabit - The Middle East - by insisting on their autonomous singularity as subjects and artists, whilst forming relations to each other that are specific and to the context as a whole. This Cabaret is in a theatre though, the theatre does or perhaps should raise its own spectre but we all seem to accept it as such, a kind of simulation, they don’t address this and I’m ok with that. The thing about this cabaret and this evening is that it makes no attempt to address the ‘real’ but rather to act upon it, to participate in ‘realness’ making. 


Moreover, I don’t think every work needs to answer to everything, one question is always enough for me and the question here is quite enough.


The form is dance, it’s always been dance. I’ve seen photos of them as children dancing, in their living rooms or on those little community stages where many of us did it way back at the start. I’ve spent time with them, a lot of  time, in studios and rooms, pouring over a Harraway text about care, mutually undertaking the task of trying to situate this thing we always did with our bodies, dance, into a larger, global context. We wanted to find ways to understand how this dancing that we’ve been doing, matters, so that we might continue to do it, we wanted to care with our dance so that our dance could sustain us. 


Roni Katz peels an orange and thinks out loud about a ‘number’. Calling a discrete moment of dance a number reminds me of depression era Hollywood musical films and all of the tap dancing teachers I ever had. A number lasts a few minutes. In ballet this would be called a ‘variation’. Roni’s number is a variation on political art, yet we are already in a state of mutual understanding that the actual political potential of political art in this context, is muted. So instead she invites us to reflect on this mutedness whilst still making the unadulterated claim ‘Free Palestine’. I enjoy the delicate togetherness of these two seemingly contradictory positions, they don't mix necessarily but they do co-exist. What I like most is Roni’s calm collectedness whilst performing. She returns our gaze in such a way that the room thickens, her gesture is affective and affecting - her gaze is a task she set herself, embodied and reproduced through processes quite familiar in the world of post 90’s conceptual contemporary dance that render this gaze as having an interesting, problematising relationship to representation.


We don’t have to care. This non normative obligation, this caring or striving to care is said to be done because we are compelled to do it, I can feel that palpably, I observe their urgencies. It is a non normative obligation because it does not, or tries its best not to reproduce the relations between people that we understand to be unfair, to be violent. This non normative obligation is a reweaving of those connections through the desire to repair and maintain. It is modest in its scope - we can’t change the world - but it is smart in its strategy - we will create something that flows with the world. We will not encounter it through a hard thud, through throwing our selves and our politics into the face of the void, a 90 degree car crash - we save that for protest, another one of our strategies. 


In this instance, they align themselves with the flows of the world, its frames for seeing and generating knowledge and move with it, two cars on a highway, they gently caress the usual status quo of relations between people and things and locate their work in the spaces in between, a rewiring. Like a happy virus that avoids the immune system of its host, like a bio hacker, working the minutiae, or the Weather Underground and their stealth infiltration strategies or maybe just social hacking, yeah. And its a dance.


Moona Moon sings, along with other performers an impassioned acoustic version of ‘Survivor’ by you… know… who.


Fulvia Dallal plays cards on a little table with some of the other artists during the show, they have slightly more light cast on them from one of the many intricate and beautiful pieces constructed by Gretchen Blegen for the occasion, the artists are extravagantly dressed. These conditions produce only a semi-invitation to watch the card game like we watch the other numbers. I am reframed as a voyeur as I half stand to see if I know the game they play. Fulvia Dallal meets my eye briefly, incidentally but piercingly, voyeurising the voyeur. The game seems to be one of ambiguous invitations, or murky boundaries between the included and the excluded. I am not on the inside.


Cabarets were historically a site for the marginalised, outcast freaks to reflect, transform, reconfigure, hack the society that cast them as so. Maybe because a Cabaret, with its many little parts is the best way for each of them to be-with one another and us, to form a web between themselves yet remain intact - each in their own dance, and together, and apart. We don’t need grand gestures or propaganda, we need actual strategies.


Welcome to the ‘menagerie of figurations’. This means a collection of short performance works that happen both together and in isolation from one another, within the same time space and affective zone. A Cabaret! This Carteret is instigated by Roni Katz and Lee Meir. They are Israeli dancers/choreographers. This Cabaret brings together various female identifying artists from the middle east who identify with or work from a queer feminist position. They are from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Germany and probably some other places that I can’t quite recall at the moment. Its banal to say it but, this ‘promiscuous’ gathering might provoke unease.


Roni and Lee are trained predominantly within the conceptual tradition of dance making and thinking and most of them presented a work. Most of them are not so called professional performers. And only one of them dropped out of the project mid-way and only one decided not to show something, she was the MC, her name is Enana. Enana mentions this and I wonder why. Why did she not do a ‘number’ yet take on the demanding task of MCing the whole thing AND why did she mention this to us. AND is the predominant word here - more so than ‘or’, ‘either’ and ‘rather’. This admission by the MC points to a fissure but one that doesn’t reveal itself completely. 


I wonder about the various forms of appearing that happen in this Cabaret and what their individual costs might have been. I speculate, that the highly affected style of Enana’s MCing offers a different space for her to inhabit than would a ‘number’ which seems to hold the imperative of producing ‘vulnerability’. The audience like vulnerability because we are here to empathise, the audience love Enana because she dazzles us. 


The case of Enana within the Cabaret is a rare moment in the whole evening that points toward rupture of the proposal or toward disagreement or failure. I wanted to know more about what didn’t work. Sometimes I don’t trust the cohesion. I know that some worked much harder than others but everyone was paid the same, why? 


Events unfold that deliberately do not exclude, replace or contrast to the others. It is a political accumulation. Accumulation as political statement. We will co-exist, we will exist-with each other. This piece of writing I am doing is written-with the work and imagines itself to be read-with the work. This being-with is a way for me to care for the work and the artists doing it.


Miriam Schickler disperses her choir of voices throughout the space so that for the first time, we the audience are caught between the action. The potential for voice to effect or queer its signified content happens in the space in between the vocal chords of the one who speaks and the ears of the one who listens. This choir is one of response between the actors as opposed to formal unison. As I am in between the one who calls and the one who responds on the minutest scale I receive before the receiver - I think of this as a call to work.


There cannot be a single issue that this Cabaret is about, despite its so obvious single-issuedness. This is because Roni and Lee and all of these women do not exist within single issue worlds. I feel shame for ever expecting and searching for the singe-issuedness in this Cabaret. Others make this same mistake, the German performer is doggedly single issued and she loses us as she berates us for ‘lying about reading Said’. She deserved to lose us - there is no point in idealising certain topics or forms of work or work that performs the collective. I often think that in Germany work that is about or derived from the Middle East is embraced in a way that can only be described as classic exotification. So im glad people feel they have permission to disengage.


Being-with the work aught to make it stronger, being-with the work aught to be ongoing, I shouldn’t land in solid, immovable judgement. Being-with the work should support its singularity and contagious potential.


Sirin Malas opened the evening with a monologue. It was in Arabic and there were no subtitles. In PJ Harvey’s last album, her intensely problematic disaster tourism album, she was often reduced to base level observations in her lyrics e.g. “A blind man sings in Arabic”. Here too am I. A woman in a fabulous gold dress recites in Arabic. 


Lee Meir brought to the cabaret full inhabitation. Full inhabitation of state, performative affect, of character. The craft of performance, of being an expert navigator of embodied affect through time and space, and from within the show. Lee inhabits a fantasised version of a British army general, stationed in Alexandria during the empires lasts moments. It raises the question of the place of conventional ‘skill’ in a Cabaret such as this - captivating story telling, committed performance, assured presence. I cant help but reflect that I want the performers that I see on stage to be ‘good’. After several long winded exercises in dismantling this desire over the years, I still want them to be good.


If care is a doing, is there a practical feature of this form of caring? Perhaps this is what art can do. These artists care about the situation in the middle east, it is also so much more than one situation. These artists do not have the luxury of escaping Western centric identity categories when appearing in public in Germany but, like this article, sidelining up to the work to co-exist alongside it, like the Cabaret, which sidelines up against the entanglement of issues the middle east invokes, these artists come up against but then move in tandem with these identity categories - acting with and through them.


There is no point in idealising this form of artistic strategy however - its what is needed so we can live in this world as well as possible.


Martin Hansen is a Berlin based dance artist.

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